Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf – A Review

Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions
Ror Wolf
Open Letter, 2013, pg 142

It would be easy to characterize Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions as a collection of short stories. In some ways they are short stories in that they are short, usually two pages, and stories. However, anyone looking for a well tuned collection of micro fiction might be disappointed because as the title notes, these are digressions. In some ways they could be called anti-stories since they eschew any claim to plot, character or narrative structure that mark most stories, and instead delight in continually breaking down into digressions that call into question the assumptions that are built around story telling.

Ror Wolf is a German visual artist whose work is marked by surrealism and that juxtaposition of otherwise everyday elements into contrasting elements is evident in his work. For Wolf, narrative only exists to be broken down. His typical story is a first person piece that starts with the announcement about what the narrator is going narrate. The narrator never tells the story, though, instead he changes his mind a few sentences in and begins a new narrative direction. For example, The Next Story begins

The next story I’d like to tell I already told on Monday, and would not like to tell it again. So I’ll tell the story from Tuesday. But now it occurs to me that absolutely nothing happened on Tuesday that I could talk about…

or from The Rate of Fame

In the past, Lemm was often compared to Klomm, to whom he absolutely shouldn’t be compared because, one must admit, not a single feature of Klomm’s can be found in Lemm. Enough about him, but think of him from the start as a man to whom there is no one to compare. So we won’t talk about Lemm or Klomm. We’ll talk about Hamm instead…

Just these two short quotes give you an insight into his approach. First, there is a consciousness that we are observing the act of story telling and that that act is not the formalized illusion of a first person short story, but disassemble of the process of telling a story with all its false starts and digressions. Second, the story itself is not necessarily the import element, rather the act of telling the story is the important element. How the teller tells the story says as much as the story itself. Finally, although it is not quite as evident in these two pieces, all the false starts are new directions one can take the unwritten stories. The false starts are not dead ends, they are openings into stories as yet untold.

No Story is a good example of the creation of stories out side the story. It starts,

I don’t have a story to tell about an accountant’s wife who was unable to sit because she caught a filthy, itchy disease, I’ve never heard of such a case. I also don’t have a story to tell about the illegitimate birth of a child, on the occasion that the woman in question implored me not to tell the story.

Again, he starts and stops, hinting at something larger, but that he won’t tell, as if it were boring or distasteful. The sense that certain stories aren’t worth telling and that certain characters are pointless or annoying is a trait Wolf shares with Thomas Bernhard. With some frequency his stories have the acerbic bitterness of Bernhard and more than a few times his stories felt similar to the Voice Imitator. However, where Bernhard wants to poke fun at society and is preoccupied with the pettiness of bourgeois life, Wolf is more interested in how the stories one tells constructs that reality.

All of his stories call into question what is a story. Is it the plot, the characters, or something else? And more important, what is the point of telling them? After reading several of his stories it is obvious there are no answers. But the idea that narrative contains one story, and whose very existence is to relate something is quickly dashed when reading Wolf’s digressions. The breaking of the narrative strategies can also the stories occasionally tiresome to read. No matter how good they are, all the shifting of the story telling can make a stead diet of them difficult to read. I would recommend dosing your effort to get the full power of his work.

While the first two thirds of the book is made up of the stories I’ve described, the last third is a long form narrative: The Forty-Ninth Digression: Twelve Chapters from a Exposed Life. The story is a kind of traveler’s journal of his various ship wreck and travels throughout the world. Except, in typical Wolf fashion, the actual travels are the least important part, often getting a perfunctory line of basic description. They are, if I can use the anti word again, anti-travel writing. The idea that one would describe the emotions, customs, or opinions of the characters is ludicrous. Yet the narrator is aware of his adventures and probably the most telling line from the whole book says,

I took pleasure in these notes; to me they seemed to become increasingly important, they were the real reason for my journey from chapter eight onwards. I didn’t write down my experiences, but tried to experience what I wanted to write down in order to lend a uniqueness to my notes that has not yet appeared in literature, or at best not in in Scheizhofer’s writing. (Emphasis mine)

Here is the crux of Wolf’s writing: one lives to write and in doing so looks for things to write about, but that is an unnatural act. The writing is the artificial element, it is the author’s search for something to write about. And that search rather than reportage, is the disruption of the experiment. Whether or not you love all of his stories, if you are interested in story telling this is a fascinating book to read.

Alejandro Zambra Interviewed in El Pais

El Pais has a decent length interview with Alejandro Zambra. It is worth checking out to get a sense of what animates his writing.

—Sí, claro. De ser un niño muy teórico e inteligentoso, la literatura pasó a servirme para explicarme cosas de las que no estaba seguro. En Formas de volver a casa yo sabía lo que estaba narrando, pero pretendía también disolver otras certezas, conseguir una cierta ambigüedad. Que el libro fuera muchas cosas a la vez. Y por supuesto que algunas cosas no sabía que estaban ahí. Eso es lo que tiene la literatura de intransferible: existen fragmentos no calculados. Creo que intenté otra manera de hablar de la dictadura chilena, que a ratos desconcierta. Hay escritores chilenos profesionales que recorren Europa…

—Comercializando el dolor.

—Claro, y bueno, sabemos quiénes son. A veces cuesta explicar en el extranjero que acá existía una vida cotidiana mientras sucedían hechos horrendos. Un periodista francés, a propósito de Formas de volver a casa, me preguntó cómo era posible que un niño anduviera por las calles en ese tiempo, sin saber que los niños de entonces andábamos por las calles harto más que los de ahora.

Los libros de Zambra, no es ni necesario preguntárselo, son autobiográficos. Hurguetean en él mismo. Hay una voz que los atraviesa. Cualquiera sea el conflicto —siempre finalmente íntimo— está el testimonio de un narrador encarnado. “En Formas de volver a casa pagué una deuda con mi infancia. Durante mucho tiempo pensé que mi experiencia no tenía importancia. Era el tiempo en que lo realmente significativo era que se esclarecieran los crímenes, que las víctimas de la tortura pudieran hablar; los que importaban no éramos nosotros —los hijos de la clase media del extrarradio, despolitizada— sino los hijos de las víctimas. Si entonces me hubieran dicho que escribiría una novela sobre la villa en que vivía en Maipú, no lo hubiera creído. Esa novela, más que relatar hechos, lo que quiere es hacerse cargo de la imposibilidad de relatarlos. En rigor, ahí hay experiencias, pero también está la sensación de que no valen la pena de ser narradas, porque hay asuntos que son más importantes. En el fondo tiene que ver con el duelo, cuando este se transformó en algo realmente colectivo en Chile. Esto debe haber pasado hace unos diez años. Dejó de ser un asunto solamente de las víctimas, y la mayoría de los chilenos entendieron que estas cosas le habían pasado al país. Aún quedan muchos crímenes sin resolver, todavía campea la impunidad, pero al menos los chilenos entendimos, la mayoría, que el duelo es colectivo”.

El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection) by Hernan Rivera Letelier – A Review

El arte de la resurrecction (The Art of the Resurrection)
Hernan Rivera Letelier
Alfaguara, 2010 254 pg

Hernan Rivera Letelier’s El arte de la resurrecction is a novelization of the life of a Chilean mystic and wandering preacher, Domingo Zárate Vega known as El Cristo de Elqui, who roamed the country during the 30s and 40s. Letelier gives a small slice of his life as El Cristo de Elqui journeys north into the desert in search of the holy prostitute Magalena Mercado who keeps an alter in her home and is devoted the Virgin Mary. He tracks her to a godforsaken little mining town in the desert where he is hailed as a holy man by the striking workers and as a agitator by management. Most of the book is concerned with his preaching in the town and how the strike unfolds as management grows more and more angry at his seeming rebellious behavior.

El Cristo de Elqui, though, is not a revolutionary but a mystic who has added his own additions to Christianity, much to the annoyance of church officials throughout Chile who see him as a threat. He is free, when he feels the need, to have sex with one of his followers, often quickly and on the roadside. In one of the funnier incidents, the day he arrives he gos to Magalena’s shack where he stretches his arms across the back of a table in a pose reminiscent of the crucifixion and she performs her trade. El arte is irreverent but not libertine so scenes like this are more scarce than one might think. El Cristo is more a holy fool, a man who has lost touch with reality and experiences the world in a mystic reality that makes him unable to perform simple tasks. It is this kind of mysticism that leads him to believe he can walk through the desert on his way to find Magalena. Naturally, he ends up walking in a circle and nearly dies, alone, forgotten. A sample of his teachings will illustrate just what kind of holy man he is. When asked for some new proverbs he says,

“La franqueza es la llave de la buena amistad.”
“La honradez es un palacio de oro”
“Las aves del cielo son mas felices que los grandes millonarios, a pesar de dormir en sus patitas y cubiertas solo de sus plumas.”
Y uno que el Padre Eterno me revelo hace solo unos días, mientras evacuaba mi vientre en plena pampa rasa: “Buen remedio es para la soberbia del hombre volver la cabeza de vez en cuando y contemplar su propia mierda.”

“Frankness is the key to good friendships.”
“Honesty is a palace of gold.”
“The birds of the sky are happier than the greatest millionaires, in spite of sleeping on their feet and covered only by their feathers.”
And one that the Holy Father revealed a few days ago when I was evacuating my bowels in the middle of the  pampa: “A good remedy for the pride of man is to turn his head once and awhile and contemplate his own shit.”

Through multiple different voices and flashbacks Letelier leads us through El Cristo de Elqui’s failures and almost successes. At one time, before the novel takes place, he had journeyed to Santiago ready to speak to thousands of followers, only to have the government arrest him and hold him in a mental hospital for several months. An abuse of state power, but given some of his actions there is just a bit of doubt, too, if his hospital stay was needed. It is obvious as the book closes that El Cristo de Elqui is as much a figure of ridicule as wisdom.

Letelier also takes time to describe Magalena’s background and this is where shows the greatest of its many weaknesses. For much the book the idea of the holy prostitute is puzzling and one wonders how someone who was so devoted to the church would become a prostitute. Unfortunately, his solution to this question is simple, insulting, and humorless: she was sexually abused by the priest who took care of her as a child. Her only escape was to run away from home and become a prostitute. What marks his humor uninteresting, and there is plenty of humor on display here, is the frivolity of the abuse and her later life as a prostitute. It is as if there were no scars, as if her personality disappeared in her religiosity. Perhaps one could say it is just a refuge for a damaged soul, but given her character is one of the biggest cliches there is, the prostitute with a heart of gold (who gives tricks on credit to the striking miners), I think it’s just bad writing. There is no complexity gained out of any of this. Just simple characters to push around the desert.

Ultimately, El arte, with its picturesque strikers who are either comical clients of Magalena or buffoonish followers of El Cristo de Elqui, is a book sprinkled with the left overs from a magical realism workshop and really has nothing to say. When I finally reached the end of the book, where El Cristo de Elqui (and yes, his name is used with the same frequency in the book as in this short little piece) and Magalena are exiled to a little hill outside of town where the strikers make their pilgrimage to see her and Letelier takes great pleasure in describing the grotesques they are, I couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, there is humor is this book; yes, there is some good writing in the book; but there is also a tendency to infantilize and instead of black humor, I had the feeling of just another man writing about sex without really saying anything new. I am rather tired of prostitutes and magical realism. Enough. There is more to Latin America.


Quarterly Conversation Summer 2013 Out Now

The Quarterly Conversation Summer 2013 issue is out now with some interesting pieces. These in particular caught my eye:

What Comes Next

By Sergio Chejfec, translated by Jessica Gordon-Burroughs

The Irresistible Heart of Darkness: Jáchym Topol and the Devil to Pay

By Madeleine LaRue

The Abdellatif Laâbi Interview

Interview by Christopher Schaefer

The Joan Margarit Interview

Interview by Prithvi Varatharajan

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim

Review by Tim Smyth

Airships by Barry Hannah – A Review

Barry Hannah
Grove Press, (Original publishing date) 1978, pg 209

Barry Hannah was a master of a certain style of American short story, one that prizes a discontinuity of humor and the absurd over more common modes of the perfectly wrought short story as in his contemporaries, such as Carver. Certainly there is an echo of an America that you can find in Carver, but for Hannah every story is an opportunity for a joke or a black humor that is suspicious of everything. In Hannah you seldom find a character that you can, in that most tiresome of literary criteria, relate to, nor do they seem to live in a world that you might recognize. What you see are stories that live at a distance from everyday experience, and form, instead,  fables and allegories of hubris and overreach that collapse in surreal plots and finds characters performing outrageous acts. At times it is funny, but there is also a distance in the stories that once the joke is understood leaves them flat, the reader saying, “oh, I get it.” The danger with absurd humor is that distancing, a phenomenon where there are no stakes left for the reader but a kind of smugness. This is not a case for a moralistic fiction, but the humor in Hannah has an attitude that just laughs without really providing much ambiguity.

Despite these faults, his stories are so well written with their American literary vernacular that passages of his work are a marvel to read. He can capture an image of a life in a brief paragraph that makes the whole story seem alive. Take this example from Deaf and Dumb

She had a certain smile that would have bought her the world had the avenue of regard been wide enough for her. They loved it at the Bargain Barn. But the town was one where beauty walked the walks as a matter of course, and her smile was soon forgotten by clerk and hurried lecher on the oily parking lot. She never had any talent for gay chatter. She could only talk in brief phrases close on the truth. How much is this? Is this washable? This won’t do, it’s ugly.

It perfectly captures a down on her luck woman who doesn’t have much luck with men. I should mention Deaf and Dumb is one of the few stories that doesn’t feel completely jokey. There is a real sense of a human inhabiting that woman. Even when a story fails to be alive, Hannah can still create paragraphs like those that can make one think this story is going to dazzle. Unfortunately, all too often a story will turn into something like Quo Vidas, Smut. For me this was the worst story of the bunch, one that meandered amongst a fugitive tale, then to a kind of rural pastoral, to surreal when a jet takes off from a farm field, ultimately finish with sex. It is here with when his surrealism fails, and his literary jokes, referencing other stories that have touched all these themes seriously, fall flat.

One of Hannah’s preoccupations is the Civil War, and more specifically, Jeb Stuart, the dashing carvery general and martyr to the cause. Something about Stuart didn’t sit right with Hannah and in one story he has a character take credit for killing the General. The irony here is the man who killed him was first a confederate soldier who loved to kill and later, when he joins the Union side, does he kill him, finding as he looks back as an old veteran that the Confederate veterans don’t want to have anything to do with him. It is an interesting story because, one, it deflates one of the sacred generals of the south, and, two, it plays with the idea of legend. As the veteran tries to take claim for the killing it could well have been him, but he finds you can’t be the hero to both sides. And if it was him, that truly was brother on brother in a way that doesn’t fit the sanctified cliches of a hundred year-old war. In Knowing He Was Not My Kind Yet I Followed, a gay soldier relates his encounter with Stuart one night. He tries to proposition him, which the general refuses, but does not otherwise notice. At the same time there is a slave who won’t shake the soldier’s hand, Stuart chastises him then hugs him as if they were lovers. Again, the general, the Christian defender of the Confederacy is satirized by treating a slave as some sort of equal and lover.

One of the better stories is Testimony of Pilot. Testimony of Pilot is a Vietnam era piece that seems cold, narrating the life story of two friends, one who joins the air force and the other, the narrator, who lives his life as an ex drummer gone deaf from too much rock and roll. Between them is a woman Lillian, a stewardess. The pilot is cold and lives his life fr the war participating in mission after mission. He won’t even kiss Lillian when he lands at an airfield just to see her (a scene that is straight out of a movie). None of them come to a good end and there is no reason for it, either. As is common in Hannah, the narrative isn’t the most important element. He works his stories to serve the humor, which often doesn’t leave room for a more character based reason. Character driven stories are not required, but when Lillian dies in a crash it is off handed, as if the fun is showing how pointless these lives have been. In small doses it works to great effect, but in a collection full of these kind of elements, it can get a little off putting.

Barry Hannah was certainly a good writer and I’m curious to see what stories published a decade later, perhaps in the 80s, would be like. The humor, often rooted in a 70s sensibility, is just too unfunny to make this collection a stand out. There are great elements to it, but the flaws just overwhelm them.

Clara Usón and Juan Carlos Mestre Win the premios de la Crítica Prize

Clara Usón and Juan Carlos Mestre have won the premios de la Crítica Prize, she for fiction and he for poetry. This is the first woman to win the prize for fiction in 52 years, which is quite surprising (only 3 women have won the prize at all). These are the Spanish language winners. There are also Catalan, Galician, and Basque winners.

La novela de Usón (Barcelona, 1961) está inspirada en la hija de Ratko Mladic, uno de los criminales más sanguinarios de la guerra de los Balcanes (ordenó ejecutar a 8.000 bosnios tras el cerco de Srebenica)¿Es justo que ella se hubiera suicidado al descubrir los horrores cometidos por su padre? Se preguntó la escritora barcelonesa (1961) para quien, dijo en una entrevista a este diario que “el populismo azuza la xenofobia y el nacionalismo y creen que pueden controlarlo, pero al final no es así”. Usón obtuvo en 2009 el premio Biblioteca Breve por Corazón de Napalm.

La escritora se muestra feliz y sorprendida por el premio. Lo primero que dice es que hace 52 años no lo recibía una mujer, y que además ese último año, 1961, es el de su nacimiento. Solo lo han recibido Ana María Matute en 1959 por Los hijos muertos y Elena Quiroga en 1961 por Tristura. La hija del Este se va a editar próximamente en países como Holanda, Francia e Italia.

The winners from Spain’s other languages:

En las otras lenguas los ganadores fueron: Catalán, Narrativa Jordi Coca por El caure la tarda; y Poesía, Jordi Llavina por Vetlla. En gallego, Narrativa, Begoña Caamaño por Morgana en Esmelle, y Poesía, Manuel Álvarez Torreiro por Os ángulos da brasa. En euskera: Narrativa, Ramón Saizarbitoria por Martutene, y Poesía, Rokardo Arregi por Bitan esan becharra.

Hablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

portada-hablar-solos_grandeHablar solos (Talking Alone / Talking to Ourselves)
Andrés Neuman
Alfagara, 2012, pg 179

Andrés Neuman is a remarkable writer who is at home writing short stories and novels. With the publication of his latest book Hablar solos, he has returned to a more intimate writing than what readers of  Traveler of the Century, published in English in 2012, might expect. At less than half the length, Hablar solos is closer in spirit to 2011’s collection of short stories Hacerse el muerto, and is composed of dialogue between three people. The three people, however, never talk to each other and in many ways do not interact with each other, instead they talk to each other as if they were writing a journal entry with all its rhetorical fluidity. I mention Hacerse el muerto because, while comic at times, returns to the theme of parental loss that he first touched on in his short quintet, Una silla para alguien. All of these elements make Hablar solos a much more personal book that shows a broad range of feeling and subjects he Neuman is willing to approach.

The three narrators are Mario, a truck driver and father of, Lito a young boy, and Elena, his wife and a professor of literature. As the book opens Mario takes Lito on a one of his deliveries in his truck, Pedro. As they drive across Spain, Mario takes Lito on a grand adventure, seeping in the cab, eating at truck stops, sleeping in hotels. It is all fascinating for the boy and everything is a big adventure. Even when strange encounters occur Lito has no idea what it really going on. Nor does he know that Mario is dying of cancer and this is their last time together. Everything they do in the truck together is tinged with sadness as Mario knows it is the last time they can do it together. While Lito’s narration is fairly matter of fact: we did this, saw that; Mario’s is a pleas for his son to remember the things they did together and understand some day what he did for Lito on that journey.

Perhaps the best example of the two voices working together is when they spend the night in a strange hotel that doesn’t even have a shower in the bathroom and Mario insists Lito not sit on the bed spread and make sure he walks everywhere with his slippers. In the hotel cafe where men and women dance, that in itself a rarity, they meet a self described magician who gives Lito a hat. Mario can’t wait to get him out of there despite Lito’s protests. He doesn’t understand why his father would do that when they were having such a good time. What Lito doesn’t know is they are in a brothel because Mario felt so sick he couldn’t continue on and stopped at the first hotel he could find. The man, Mario says, though Lito was for rent since who could believe a father would bring their son into a place like that. It is a funny and touching moment showing both the desperation of the father to have that one last experience with his son, and to protect him from what ever harm he can.

The strongest and ever present voice, though, is Elena. He narration makes up half the book and is where the real exploration of the pain of loss happens. Mario is unable to express himself very deeply. Everything goes through the family, but for Elena the coming loss is overwhelming and leads her into an affair with Mario’s cancer doctor. It is a strange relationship, almost sadomasochistic, one where the doctor fetishes the human body in all its failings. It isn’t so much a love affair as an act of denial: for her that death is coming; for the doctor that in worshiping the body, even with all its flaws, can heal those who are about to feel loss. These are the conversations Mario and Elena should be having, but the novel is called Hablar solos for a good reason: no one is willing to discuss anything and leaves Elena to wonder

Pero otras veces me pregunto: ¿Y si ese, exactamente, fuera Mario? ¿Y si, en lugar de haber perdido su esencia, ahora sólo quedase lo esencial de él? ¿Como una desilación? ¿Y si en este hospital estuvieramos malentendiendo los cuerpos de nuestors seres queridos?

But at other times I wondered: And if this really were Mario? And if instead of having lost his essence, now, only remained the essential parts of him? Like a distillation? And if in this hospital we are misunderstanding the bodies of our dear ones?

Because Mario and Elena speak by themselves they are unable to answer these questions. It makes the grief Elena feels all the greater. Yet when it is a private thing and when she is reproached for not having asked earlier for help from her friends or family she says,

Confunden SOS y SSO, lo que yo llamo Servicio Sentimental Obligatorio

They confuse the SOS and the OSS, what I call the Obligatory Sentimental Service.

It is a line that captures the novel well, the struggle between communicating and expressing one’s self. The irony of the novel is that although the characters are talking alone, they are talking ad they know they need to pass along what they have to say, they just can’t bring themselves to do it in conversation. It is as if conversation would contain their ability to express themselves.

Hablar solos is an excellent book that successfully renders three distinct voices into a conversation. Neuman’s experiment with the different voices is quite successful and even though you don’t know the whole back story to the characters (this feels like Neuman the short story writer at work, and a nice touch), you have the sense of a completion. What really made the novel so good, though, was Neuman’s way of delving into the slow loss that cancer brings. It can make the novel tough at times, but the humor, especially in the voice of Lito, doesn’t less it so much as make it easier to approach. It is a delicate balancing act that shows Neuman at the top of his game and a writer whose next work I look forward to reading.

If you are looking to read it in English, Puskin Press will be publishing it in Spring 2014.


Andrés Neuman on the Guatemalan Writer Augusto Monterroso

A couple interesting articles about the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso appeared in El Pais recently. One is from a favorite of the blog, Andrés Neuman, who gives a good account of how Monterroso, in the midst of the Boom, went in completely the opposite direction, eschewing the nation building novels and looking towards the humorous short stories.

Augusto Monterroso encarna cierto tipo de intelectual latinoamericano en las antípodas del boom, cuya ambición no persigue el proyecto total ni las esencias nacionales, sino el atentado contra el tótem y la discreción irónica. A dicha estirpe, tan desertora del canon como fronteriza en lo estético, pertenecen también Alejandro Rossi, Marco Denevi o Rodolfo Wilcock. Quizá no casualmente, en la obra de estos cuatro autores, humor e inteligencia son dos formas de leer entre líneas. A caballo entre el ensayismo bonsái y la micronarrativa, todo texto de Monterroso contiene un género y su parodia. Los motivos de esa confrontación interna tienen que ver sin duda con una poética, pero también con una actitud. A diferencia de quienes consideran que un ceño fruncido es signo de genialidad, Monterroso (Tegucigalpa, 21 de diciembre de 1921 – Ciudad de México, 7 de febrero de 2003) no aspiraba a exhibir su conocimiento, sino a desconfiar de él.

The second from El Pais comes from Javier Rodríguez Marcos‘ blog Letra Pequeña. A new collection of his stories has come out and he sounds interesting. A nice dosage of humor that turns ideas around and is more than just jokes.

a algo tenían que servir los aniversarios: vuelve Augusto Monterroso. El escritor guatemalteco exiliado en México murió, con 81 años, en febrero de 2003 y Debolsillo publica ahora El Paraíso imperfecto, una “antología tímida” preparada por Carlos Robles Lucena. La nota de prensa que acompaña el libro utiliza las expresiones “deliciosa antología” y “célebre autor”, y no es difícil imaginarse al célebre autor de la deliciosa antología sonriéndose ante tales epítetos. Todo adjetivo supone un criterio de clasificación y a Monterroso le gustaban las clasificaciones, no en vano decía que toda su obra era una variación sobre la de Borges. Cuando en el libro de entrevistas Viaje al centro de la fábula le preguntaron “¿Qué sensación te produce ser considerado o designado, generalmente, como un humorista?” Monterroso respondió: “Agradable, no por lo de humorista, sino por el hecho de ser clasificado. Me encanta el orden”. Basta echar un vistazo a las cinco toneladas de documentos que atesora su archivo –actualmente en la universidad de Oviedo- para certificarlo.

If you can read Spanish I suggest you read his short story El eclipse. It has a great twist on the westerner, the savage and the eclipse type stories that have shown up in more than a few books and movies.

José Ovejero has won the Alfaguara de Novela

José Ovejero has won the Alfaguara de Novel. According to El Pais:

La invención del amor transcurre en Madrid y relata la historia de Samuel, soltero de 40 años, que es socio de una empresa de materiales de construcción, que se enamora de una mujer que ha muerto. A partir de ahí empieza a reinventar su vida. Esa búsqueda del amor lo lleva a salir de sí mismo y a asomarse al mundo real de la España actual. Según la editorial, “es una novela con solteros y crisis que crece y se ramifica, a partir de la curiosidad por lo inmediato, llegando a tocar el misterio. El narrador protagonista nos hace cómplices hablándonos directamente sobre la soledad, el amor y la capacidad para reinventarse y autoengañarse”. Un relato generacional tanto en lo sentimental como social

On The Road – The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac – A Review

9780670063550HOn The Road – The Original Scroll
Jack Kerouac
Viking, 2007, pg 408

It would be an obvious way of approaching On The Road the Original Scroll to compare it to the published version; however, for good or bad it has been a long time since I’ve last read On the Road. What I’m left with is a nebulous memory of a book I remember liking when I was younger. Only the scene with Slim Gaillard has always stuck with me all these years, and little else. I did read the Darma Bums maybe ten years ago, so when I think of Kerouac that is what comes to mind. I think this forgetfulness is fortuitous  because it gives me a chance to approach the book in as fresh a manner as is possible with an author as legendary as Kerouac. If I had read On The Road recently I think I might have gotten caught up in comparing the works, instead of the real issue: are the Beats and specifically Kerouac worthy of their legend?

At this point the times that Kerouac are describing, 1947-1949, were so long ago that it can be hard to see understand the world he lived in. It is important to note that Kerouac was from the so called Greatest Generation, in other words, the World War II generation. By the time the book was published in the late 50’s he was in his thirties and the Baby Boom youth culture was soon to become ascendent. As a child of the depression and an America ascendent, Kerouac’s influences as a writer and as someone imagining America obviously come from those mid-century writers like Steinbeck. He has an idea of America as something to celebrate. An America of the common man. Although he doesn’t use those words he has an imagined America in his mind that seems like part Stienbeck, part Thomas Hart Benton, and a little Woody Guthere. It is an apolitical and sweet paradise of great souls living in an American Arcadia that has the good fortune to have Jazz, too. It is this idealized America of the small town and the Jazz man living like secular holy men that fills On The Road. It is a contrasting image of the wild and the tame as if Kerouac could not make up his mind which way to go. It must have also seemed exotic to readers who knew nothing of Mexican food, Jazz, or bohemian life.

While On The Road is obviously autobiographical, it has been heavily edited and reflects the mores of the 1950’s and Malcom Crowly. The scroll, though, is a much more transparent autobiographical work and has a much wider depth of experience, both commendable and distasteful. While I have no way to know how much of the scroll is true, but from what I’ve read over the years it is fairly accurate depiction of his adventures. The first thing that will strike a reader is how open to homosexuality Kerouac sees to be. In one scene he falls asleep while Ginsberg and Cassidy have sex, and in New York and San Fransisco they end up hanging out in bars with gay clientele. Yet while that might be commendable for their openess the behavior towards the women is horrible. Multiple times women are referred to nothing more than “cunts”, or the cliched “first class beauties.” Cassidy the so called hero of the book leaves his wives at the drop of a hat, and Kerouac is always going on about making a girl, as if he was some high school boy. For a book that is supposed to chart a new way, it is just more of the same. They are just men looking to get laid and wrapping it up in some sort of holy adventure doesn’t make their attitudes any better. The height of this mistreatment is when one of their friends ditches his new wife in Tucson while he and Cassidy go out to New York to see Kerouac. And the women are expected to take it.

But the adventures you ask? What about the road? It is there alright in all its enchanting glory. The road is Kerouac’s mystical lover and he hones his writing to finding the beauty of passing through the beautiful landscape with all its beautiful people who he comes to love and admire after drinking with them for a few hours and passing on. Here is one particular passage that winds itself up into a dream of San Fransisco that says everything:

A great heatwave descended;it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain at three and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods brooded on all sides. I felt like playing cowboys. Near the peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were gazing on top of the Coast. There was the Pacific , a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a great wall of white advancing from the legendary Potato Patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women sanding in white doorways, waiting for their man; and Cot Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market street, and the eleven teeming hills. Lonely Frisco for me then–which would buzz a few years later when my soul got stranger. Now I was only a youth on a mountain.

Kerouac hasn’t even seen San Fransisco yet, but he has a romantic vision of love and beauty. He’s searching for a paradise, an elusive one as it turns out, but one that is enchanting as he describes it. The road is also a propulsive place and his language is littered with words that make the reader feel there is constant movement. Here are just a few: zooming, rushing night, flited by, bucking through, roaring, humming. And if he isn’t telling you how the stars are “pure and bright” out on the great plains, like many of inhabitants he meets, he resorts to his two favorite words: crazy and mad. It seems that everything is going mad or crazy. If some one is mad or going mad they are some one to watch. And, of course, flying though the night with the “American saint” Cassidy who’s gone mad is the height of experience.

The road, Kerouac’s road, is enchanting and when he sticks to the road he isn’t too bad. Unfortunately, he spends quite a bit of time partying. There is no other way to describe it. Unfortunately, the only thing worse than going to party of drunk people and not drinking, is reading about it. Sneaking in and out of NY apartments during New Year’s eve isn’t interesting. Nor is hanging around with William Burroughs in New Orleans. It is one of the eeriest parts of the book to read about  Joan and know that when Kerouac was writing the book she was still alive. His description of the family living some sort of idle becomes a sick joke and anything but transcendent. And this is the problem. Kerouac isn’t seeking anything really transcendent as he later seems to be looking for in the Darma Bums. He’s just looking for kicks. A new kind of kicks, but just kicks. It is what makes it so easy for him to slide from bohemian parties in New York and spend a few weeks with a Mexican-American farmer worker and talk about how much he loves her, only to leave her and her child and never talk about her again, as if she was just another roadside attraction.

Just in case anyone thinks that I don’t get the power of the road, the mad crazy America he finds, which is really just his imagination, lets turn to the trip to Mexico. While Kerouac comes across as a wise pilgrim working his way through the heart of America, when he and Cassidy go to Mexico they become nothing more than American tourists on the search for cheep booze and cheep women. Some where on their way to Mexico city they find a little tow with a brothel. They spend the day there drinking and having sex. Kerouac even sees a 15 year old black girl that he falls in love with and wants to sleep with. They know nothing about Mexico and they are nothing more than frat boys on a binge. In a different context the Beats as described by Kerouac really aren’t that different from the rest of America and certainly are not noble.

The great problem with Kerouac and his vision of the Beats that once you get past the idea that there are more experiences than just working your 9 to 5 job, there’s nothing left. Of course, how can there be anything. This is a young man’s book, one that doesn’t describe his descent into alcoholism and a kind of reactionary politics. Kerouac made the mistake of believing the methods to achieve the journey (alcohol, drugs) were the journey in of themselves. It is even more painful to see it in Kerouac because as Gary Snyder has pointed out, Kerouac was honest enough to write in his books of his self destruction and yet could not learn the lessons of it. Kerouac had his moments as a writer and there are some great passages in the book, but the bohemian life that seemed to offer a new way was just a dead end for him. It’s too bad because the idea of the open road is so alluring.

Note: Given our food obsessed culture, I kept a list of everything he mentioned eating. This might be where his era and ours differs the most:

  • Apple pie and ice cream
  • Chile and coffee
  • Coffee, toast, and egg
  • Milk shake
  • Snack of beans and franks
  • Brain and eggs; lamb curry
  • Watermelon
  • tacos; mashed pinto beans rolled in tortillas
  • grapes
  • Bread and hamburger
  • Cans of cooked spaghetti and meatballs, bread, butter, coffee, and cake
  • Tortillas and mashed beans
  • Bread and salami
  • Hamburgers and fries
  • Rice
  • Bread and cheese
  • Can of pork and beans heated on an upside down iron

In the recent weeks there have been a couple good articles on Kerouac at Tin House and NYRB.

La canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

portada-portada-esLa canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Menoscuarto, 2012, pg 322

La canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song) is the latest novel from the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz whose work I’ve followed on this blog for the past few years (see his stories, novels, and interviews). He is a devotee and a champion of the short story and when I think of his work it is always in that context. However, with each novel he shows himself to be as equally good with the long form as the short form. La canción extends the explorations of art, sexuality and power that he fist explored in El Corazon de los Caballos and goes father, finding both the release and the entrapment each has on the other. It makes for a novel that is every changing in surprising ways and descends into the darkest desires of pleasure and pain.

El gran Leonardo Veneroni (The Great Leonardo Veneroni) son of Leonardo Veneroni, el grande (Big Leonardo Veneroni) is a jazz singer who is planing to record a new album of standards with his group Veneroni’s Quartet. He wants to record an album that will set itself apart from other Spanish jazz albums. It will also set himself apart from the legacy of his late father who sang Spanish pop songs and who died in while the gran Leonardo was a boy. Veneroni is a dedicated singer, almost monkish in his approach to working out how he is going to find a new way to sing standards that already seem to have a definitive interpretation. As Veneronitries to find a new way within a standard, Muñoz shows his deep reverence for music, not only the jazz and pop of the English speaking world, but that of Spain and Europe. It is obvious he has thought about the relationships between the different arts as there are several passages that draw a parallel between songs and short stories:

También las grandes composiciones, las sinfonías, las óperas estaban llenas de momentos muertos en los que la expresividad de la acción desaparecía y la melodía recorría un camino oscuro y brozoso. Las canciones, en cambio, tendían por naturaleza a la perfección. Aunque la mayoría de las veces no era posible culminar tal propósito, una canción no podía intentar otra consa que ser perfecta y conseguir llenar tres minutos de vacío y silencio con una narración emocionante hecha melodía inolvidable.

With in each song Veneroni wants to sing there is a nostalgia that makes the song perfect, but also must be overcome to make the song new and breathe again. The difficulty and effort it takes to find something new in the received makes a classical, not a romantic argument for this kind of art. It also creates constraints that Veneroni is often unable to find a release artistically.

Veneroni moves into what he thinks is an abandoned apartment building near the seashore to practice. Instead, there is a couple next door and a friendship develops with the wife. A sexual tension exists between the two yet nothing comes of it, in part because Veneroni cannot develop relationships with women. Instead, he hires prostitutes. For Veneroni, his only sexual way of experiencing the world is when he can dominate it. In the same way that music is to be controlled, his sexual passions leave him to create situations where he is in control. It is also a way of avoiding the life his father led, constantly cheating on his mother only to be taken back when he sang her the right song. Veneroni is the Great Veneroni and that requires a special dedication to his art, one that does not waste away in silly pleasures or trite songs that you are forced to sing for the rest of your career as if you were a nostalgia machine.

It is here where the novel takes a surprising turn when his neighbor passes his name on to a dominatrix, Mariam, and he begins to submit to her. For someone like Veneroni, given to having complete control over everything in his life, it is a a shock, in part because he had no interest in it before. With the arrival of Mariam, though, he descends into a world of controlled passion, of sublimation his purely sexual desires and forming a bond with someone. Their relationship reaches such a point that he is unable to sing because all he can think of is her. his art has always meant control and now that he has no control he looses his art. Ultimately, Mariam asks him to perform a sacrifice so great that it alters the power dynamic of their relationship and his ability to continue as an artist.

Given the wildly erotic content of the novel one should not overlook the questions surrounding the creation of Veneroni’s music, or any art for that matter. For Veneroni music as he lives it is the austere life that comes to life when he has found the essential nature of a song. For many people, though, it is also nostalgia and a means of shared expression. Even though Veneroni is singing for audiences that interplay between the two doesn’t exist, in the way it does for his father. It is also why Veneroni’s sexual life is so impersonal: why make allow in something that will only make your sense of control dissipate. The question left unanswered, though, in this fine novel is if the complete control over one’s life doesn’t make for good relationships, does the loosening of that control make for good art? It is something the reader will have to decide, for part I can only hope that the answer is yes.

Spanish Short Story Writer Medardo Fraile Has Died

The Spanish short story writer Medardo Fraile (1925-2013) has died. While not known well in English, he is considered one of the best of his generation, which included Aldecoa, Martín Gaite, Sánchez Ferlosio, Matute, and Fernández Santos. The writers of later generations such as Navarro, Tizón, Sáez de Ibarra have recognized his work, which is realistic than his contemporaries, as masterful. A few of his stories have been translated in English and In August Pushkin Press is going to bring out a translation of Cuentos de verdad. 

There are several obituaries and remberances at El Pais but the best I’ve read is from Andres Neuman who notes that he always remembers a phrase of Fraile’s:

«La estuvo mirando tres minutos; dos de ellos los dedicó a la nariz»

He watched her for 3 minutes; two of them dedicated to her nose.

From El Pais:

Era metafórico y minucioso, como en sus cuentos; y narraba lo que pasó en la guerra, más de setenta años después, con el mismo vigor con que hubiera contado el presente. Creía que el cuento era “un puñetazo lleno de realidad posible”, y a aquel tiempo le concedía una vigencia insoslayable, por eso hablaba de lo que pasó entonces como si estuviera narrando oralmente lo que quizá entonces se contó a sí mismo, mientras paseaba, bajo el ruido de las bombas, por estos escenarios entonces devastados.

Contaba sin pudor su vida, y hablaba con libertad de amigos y de adversarios, a los que zahería en voz baja; su recuerdo más emocionado, en las memorias y en persona, era para Ignacio Aldecoa, prematuramente fallecido en 1969, a los 44 años. Aldecoa era el jefe de filas de la generación de Medardo, “era el hermano mayor”. Evocando esa muerte, Fraile, que supo la noticia por casualidad en su exilio escocés, dijo que aquel compañero era sin duda un escritor de una voz “inconfundible, ejemplar”, el mejor de su tiempo, y mientras lo iba diciendo de sus ojos nítidamente azules fueron brotando unas lágrimas que al fin le quebraron la voz.

Nunca se fue del todo de España, o nunca estuvo del todo en Escocia. Cuando venía a Madrid llamaba a sus amigos, a sus editores, explicaba su nostalgia en función del frío que pasaba en Glasgow, pero en realidad sintió que aquella larga estancia fuera de su país había desnaturalizado el conocimiento que él mismo, y sus estudiosos y animadores —José María Merino, Ángel Zapata, Eloy Tizón…—, creía que merecía su producción literaria. Le pregunté por qué seguía viviendo allí, tan frío y tan lejos. “Pues ni yo mismo lo sé”. Dio clases en la Universidad de Strathclyde, desde los años setenta. Allí se casó, allí nació su hija. Explicando por qué seguía en Escocia dijo: “Allí estoy, recordando; yo vivo en Escocia, pero lo único que hago allí es recordar España”.

A few other articles and interviews from El Pais:

Short Story Black Holes by Samanta Schweblin up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario at Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of Samanta Schweblin’s Black Holes from her collection El Núcleo del Disturbio.

Dr. Ottone halts in the corridor and begins to balance on the balls of his feet, very slowly at first, with his eyes fixed on one of the hospital’s black and white floor tiles, and so Dr. Ottone is thinking. Then he makes up his mind, returns to his office, switches on the lights, leaves his things on the couch and rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file, and so Dr. Ottone is preoccupied with a certain case and has determined to resolve it, to find an answer or, at the very least, to refer the patient to another doctor, for instance, Dr. Messina. He opens the file, looks for a specific page, finds it and reads: “… Black holes. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, you’re here, and then suddenly you’re at home, in bed, with your pajamas on, and you know for certain that you haven’t locked up the office or turned off the lights or traveled the distance you had to travel to get home; what’s more, you haven’t even seen me off. So, how could you possibly find yourself in bed with your pj’s on? Well, that’s an empty space, a black hole is what I say, zero hour, whatever you want to call it. What else could it be? …” 


Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling – a Review / Reflection

9780141442396HPlain Tales from the Hills
Rudyard Kipling
Introduction Edited with an introduction by Kaori Nagai
Penguin Classics, 2011, pg 292

I wanted to know, is Kipling readable? Is there something more to him than jungle stories or a colonial apologies? And what is he like as a craftsman? He was immensely popular once,  but that doesn’t necessarily make him an interesting writer. More than enough junk has climbed the best seller lists and has long been forgotten for good reason.  However, as certain fiction styles have ossified into best practices, it is good to look back and see the approaches writers of other days used. His first collection of short stories Plain Tales from the Hills seemed like a good choice for two reasons: it was published early in his career and would show him possibly less guarded; and two, the stories are less well know and wouldn’t merge with the various film versions of his works I’ve seen over the years. And, of course, I like short stories.

Taking these issues one by one. The issues with colonialism are certainly there and it is worth noting that the stories are rarely about Indians. The world of these stories are of the civil servants who exhibit all the concerns of late Victorians: class, social standing, reputation, and money. When Indians appear it is often in a transgressive story where the British have entered into a world they don’t belong, one that is indecipherable to the westerner. He returns twice to the character of a police officer who has learned the ways of the Indian under class, knows how to disguise himself and speak in their slang. He, though, is looked at as a freak who needs civilizing, in other words, needs to get married to change his ways. What we never see is exactly what he does amongst the people he is so capable of being with. Kipling appears to understand from a distance what life is like for these people, but is in no ways close enough to describe it like he does the British. Of course, there is always a subtlety to this: the best way to know a people is to be among them. Several times Kipling suggests this in his stories, but that knowledge comes at a cost of loosing oneself amongst the other. With Kipling, though, you are never sure if he is conscious of this dichotomy or it slips through.

For the British citizen and Kipling’s readers in Britten, the real danger was not the Indians, it was not being able to withstand the life in the colonies. The idea that the life in the colonies was harder and more difficult than that of Brittan is present throughout the book. It isn’t just the heat and food, it is the chance that one might loose one’s Britishness. Going native, or more to the point, letting one’s side down is the issue. It also points towards and ideal type of Englishman, who is strong enough to keep himself inline. Early on there is a story about a young man, probably a dandy, who kills himself because he can’t take life in India. The narrator and a friend do the only thing they can do and bury him and tell everyone he died of a fever. They send his parents a letter that praises his life. They will know nothing of the truth, one these two men of the Empire have had to do to keep Brittan content. Empire is a messy business and only certain men are called to it. Kipling is often noted for his ability understand the life of the average Brittan in India and render it in fiction, and that is his strongest element in these stories. The colonial enterprise is never questioned, but the hardships on the individual are often right at the surface.

Still, Kipling is writing about a mostly British world and his preoccupation with what seem like drawing room romances played against the Raj can get a little tiresome. Women in his stories are often interested in the petty, gossipy side of life. His portraits are not crude, but the lives of women are limited, not only by the times, but a little more insight into their actual lives. For example, there are a series of stories about two women who hate each other and both kenive to undo the machinations of each other. The narrator even notes how one, who was always self centered, helped a young man and beat the other woman at her own game. It is that sense of constant game that sours on the women, and gives the sense of a narrator winking at the audience, look how petty these women are. There are exceptions, of course, and in Three and – An Extra he describes a woman who on loosing her baby goes into grief and her husband begins to look at another woman. The wife through her maneuvers (feminine wiles might be the narrator’s choice) at a dance one night, wins her man back. The sensitivity to the situation is quite perceptive and shows him at his best. The story does, like many of them, end on a whimsical note: ‘Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.’

As a short story writer he proposes some interesting challenges to the modern read used to the well wrought story with an epiphany. Certainly, these are stories, but you might also call them tales, little vignettes. The stories originally appeared in an Indian newspaper and can’t be more than 3000 words. It gives them a brevity and economy that is refreshing. While all the stories are in first person in the sense that the narrator makes himself known to the reader, and occasionally is the primary character of the story, the narrator is describing events at second hand, which means the stories lean more towards summary than detailed action. It may seem limiting to be writing about events from an unprivileged narrative position, but it gives Kipling room to play with the narrator. You are never quite sure what the narrator believes. Are there the occasional criticisms of British life in India? Take a line like this: “She was a Miss Tallaght, and men spelt her name ‘Tart’ on the programmes when they couldn’t catch what the introducer said.” Is this supposed to be taken as evidence of her lowly standing, or an example of how bad the men are, or something else? Another trick he employs is to start on a short tangent and stop midway through and say, but that is a story for another time. Occasionally, he actually returns to tell the story. All these touches make for a richer stories and the shifting of the narrative and the narrator throughout the book makes Kipling’s writing surprisingly interesting.

A note on the edition. In addition to the fine introduction which notes how the book was put together with an eye towards explaining India to Brittan, the notes make quite clear where Kipling, later in life, began to remove elements that suggested his characters had more contact with natives and had taken on more of their ways. In The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, he takes what are the confessions of a British subject and opium addict and changes it to a non British character; thus, he limits the notion that an Englishman could descend into such a disgraceful life. This is the most egregious example, there are little changes throughout that show the younger Kipling, Kipling the journalist in India, had a wider vision and a freer sense of decorum, before he became the defender of Empire.

In all, Plain Tales from the Hills, despite it’s problems, has a surprising liveliness to it that marks Kipling as an interesting writer. I might not recommend reading all the stories cover to cover, they can get a little claustrophobic and you may need to read a little Orwell to counter balance,  but they are certainly better than one would suppose.

Sergio Álvarez: Magical Realism has become an excuse for atrocities

I’m not particularly familiar with Sergio Álvarez but any kind of strong statement like this always catches my interest. Essentially, he is saying that magical realism can lull one into thinking that violence is the natural state of these exotic people.

Pregunta. ¿Este libro tiene algo de manifiesto?

Respuesta. Un poco. Me interesa mucho recuperar el placer de narrar por sí mismo, rescatar historias de personajes sencillos y salir de ese yo permanente, esa introspección permanente, característica de la literatura de hoy.

P. Entiendo, pero yo me refería a ruptura con la tradición del realismo mágico.

R. Es que ese movimiento literario, que fue magnífico, se ha convertido en una excusa para la atrocidad. Tanto en La lectora como aquí, lo que yo más quiero es señalar que en Colombia pasan cosas horribles y no falta quien diga “ah, claro, pero es que ése es el país del realismo mágico”. Mis libros apuntan a lo contrario: ponen las cosas crudas sobre la mesa para que se vea que estas cosas terribles no se pueden justificar.

P. O sea que usted saluda al realismo mágico pero propone pasar página.

R. García Márquez marca una época, pero hay que seguir adelante con la realidad que tenemos y no con la que quisiéramos tener o la que nos inventamos.

Short Story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo Available at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario has published an English translation of the short story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo at Contemporary Argentine Writers. It is a interesting story and has some nice touches, especially the way the he plays with how narrators describe things.

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s truly what she was like. I’m not sure if I’m really describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

Cristina Fernández Cubas Has Published a New Novel – La puerta entreabierta

One of my favorite short story writers, Cristina Fernández Cubas, has published a new novel called, La puerta entreabierta (The Half Open Door). It is her first work since the death of her husband several years ago, and marks a bit of a transition for her. When she was trying to write after her husband’s death she found it difficult and melancholy work. At a certain point she hit on writing with a pseudonym, Fernanda Kubbs. It is a fascinating thing to do. It isn’t uncommon, but usually using a pseudonym is to hide or create a marketing line between two different literary personalities. Here, though, it is something more. The review from El Pais sounds interesting and not too dissimilar to the short stories collected in Todos los cuentos (See my reviews here and here).

If you understand Spanish there is a good interview at Pagina 2 that I would recommend you watch.

A good overview of her recent struggles at her conceptualization of her work can be found at El Pais.

A veces para cicatrizar la herida que supone una gran pérdida necesitamos un cambio que nos distraiga del dolor. A Cristina Fernández Cubas (Arenys de Mar, 1945, Barcelona) le llevó un tiempo abordarlo. Perdió a su esposo, el escritor Carlos Trías, de un cáncer de pulmón en 2007. La pareja, entre otras complicidades, compartía la pasión por la lectura y la escritura. A medida que pasaban los días, el placer se tornó en martirio. “No podía seguir como si nada hubiera ocurrido. Todo lo que tenía a medio hacer lo mandé a la porra”, cuenta la escritora en un céntrico hotel de Barcelona, decorado en ese estilo minimalista que tanto abunda. La puerta entreabierta, su nueva novela, firmada con el seudónimo de Fernanda Kubbs, rompe un largo silencio en el terreno de la ficción e inaugura una nueva etapa en su carrera que va a mantener en paralelo con su etapa anterior.

Entre la inestabilidad que proporciona uno de esos asientos en los que te hundes, Fernández Cubas alisa su melena revuelta por el viento. De negro, de la cabeza a los pies, solo la espina de una sardina, tallada en plata, pone un destello de color en su atuendo. Habla con voz neutra de su melancolía: “Lo de leer lo solucioné pronto a base de disciplina, pero escribir me inducía a la tristeza. No podía con ello. La bola de cristal (en la que queda atrapada precisamente la protagonista de su novela) estaba allí, de manera perversa en mi cabeza; escribía en círculo y no hacía más que ahondar en la tristeza y, bueno, un poco de melancolía vale, pero no podía seguir con aquello”. La puerta entreabierta no nació como un proyecto, sino como un juego que le permitió “salir, disfrutar y gozar. De repente, surgió Isa, una joven periodista, y la magia. La magia siempre me ha gustado y fue ahí donde me di cuenta de que ese cambio de registro o de mirada me había envuelto y recuperaba las ganas de levantarme. Casi enseguida, creo que al final del primer capítulo, pensé en dos cosas: una, yo tiro para adelante, ya veremos dónde me lleva y, otra, que me llamaría Fernanda Kubbs”.

There is also a review at El Pais.

En Fernanda Kubbs está Cristina Fernández Cubas como en La puerta entreabierta están las múltiples sendas narrativas transitadas por la autora en un buen puñado de cuentos inolvidables, la aventura y actualización de un tema clásico pasado por el peculiar tamiz del sueño en la novela El año de Gracia (1985) o los recuerdos y evocaciones de las Cosas que ya no existen (2001) que acaban imponiéndose como un libro de memorias y a la vez conforman un conjunto de relatos sobre la vida de los otros: en apariencia historias sueltas, retazos de memorias, anécdotas de viaje, fotografías que se animaban de repente y, “acabada la función, regresaban a su engañosa inmovilidad de tiempo detenido”. Pero no nos confundamos. No es un totum revoltum lo que ahora nos ofrece la escritora barcelonesa sino un viaje —muy bien organizado pese a la frontera que traspasa y los múltiples territorios de la ficción por los que transita—, a través de sí misma en su faceta de impar fabuladora. Y es también un homenaje a quienes la invitaron —o enseñaron— a recorrer el territorio de la fantasía y la invención literarias: los Grimm, Andersen, Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle… y Ana María Matute.

Building Stories by Chris Ware – A Review

tumblr_m4doenYhNZ1r4t46jo3_1280Building Stories
Chris Ware
Pantheon Books, 2012, pg 200

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is not only a genre bending work, but a form bending work that seeks to create a graphic novel that is more than just panels and words, but an expression of the full potential of the form. While the graphic novel, at least since Maus, has been respected for its content potential, in other words, the ability to tells stories that heretofore had been the domain of text only forms, often what I see released are 60 pages of panels that relate a rather straight forward short story. Sure, the drawing styles are all different, but fundamentally it seems as nothing has changed since the early days of Superman. Naturally, there are exceptions, such as a favorite of this blog, Joe Sacco, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with panels and text. But the form has existed for close to a century now and it’s time for a little more experiments with form. All of this is to say, Building Stories is something new that takes Ware’s already know penchant for genre mixing in his Acme Comics Library works and creates his most interesting and form breading work.

Contained in a box and composed of multiple different pieces, all in different sizes an formats, from books to newspaper size folded sections to a board game like tablet. It may be that the format is a legacy of the publishing history of these pieces, many of which have appeared in various forms over the last 10 years.  Nevertheless, the different formats play with the history of the comic form, from newspaper section to comic book to graphic novel. It is a tactile game that makes reading each section different from the previous. More over, there is no order to read the pieces. They can be read in any order and the story of the four lives contained within continually rewrite themselves as you begin each new section and have to rethink a previous piece. What makes Ware’s work even more interesting is that he uses the graphic elements to their fullest. He is well known for using popular forms as newspapers and advertizements within his work, and he continues that is these pieces. But he also plays with the form, often rearranging the way a series of panels should be read on the page, allowing the placement of his images, not the narrative to dictate the art. It also makes for a more engaged reading, because the reader can not just slip from panel to panel, but must stop and take stock of the page as a whole to navigate. Where Ware is often at his best are in the moments where there are no words and he just has a series of panels that express in a subtle way, the emotional state of his characters. Given that much of his work is precise and geometric, often eschewing great detail, his skill at showing the internal desperation of a character, often in just subtly repeating a frame, is impressive.

Building Stories follows the lives of the residents of a turn of the century apartment building as they lead lives of quiet desperation. Ware’s most evocative writing comes in the untitled hard bound book, which provides an alternating view into the lives of four people who live in the building: the old woman who owns the building; a couple who always fights; and a one legged woman who works in a florist shop and spends most of her time apart. Their stories intertwine the loneliness that can come even though one lives right next door to someone else. The desperation is every present through out the work as a whole, and is a reflection of failed dreams and lives that have settled into a rut. For the florist, the character Ware will develop throughout the work, her life has never lived up to expectations and she is constantly aware of it, equipped with all the tools an art school education can give to analyze the world, and yet never come to any realization of where one should go.

Also included are two booklets about a bee and the alternate universe he lives in. The bee is a hard worker and the stories follow his attempts to be a good provider for his family. The bee stories provide some comic relief, but only slightly. There, too, is the same sense of longing to find ones way, Ware has just recast from the point of view of a bee. They are fun stories that make what could be a very self absorbed collection about humans, into something a little broader that can describe the real sense of loneliness of the characters, but also poke fun at the way humans create the  conditions that make them so unhappy.

If I have any complaint, its that only in the hard bound book do we get a complete picture of the residents of the building. After the florist leaves the building and begins her life outside of it, the other characters disappear. While it may have been impossible to work characters together that really had no relationship other than proximity, it would have been an interesting task. I suspect it’s because Ware wrote the sections independent of the Building Stories concept. That said, the life of the florist as she becomes a mother and moves to Oak Park, Chicago confronts middle class anxieties in Ware’s visually arresting style, and is still as interesting as the life in the building.